Wonder Woman is a film about a superbly violent woman who uses her physical prowess to help end “the war to end all wars”. She kills countless German soldiers - dispatching one officer in hand-to-hand combat. She helps British and American soldiers eliminate German manufacturers of poison gas. When enraged, she destroys all around her, life and property. But her aims are pacifist - she wants to bring peace to the world.
She is Diana, the Amazonian princess who is also battling the God of War. She was trained to do so by her aunt, the greatest Amazonian General Antiope. When deciding to leave her Amazonian paradise for the grim theatre of war, Diana (Gal Gadot) explains that she is compelled to do so. Mirroring the self-reflections of many men who have enlisted to fight, she wonders who she’d be if she didn’t do what she thought was right. She embodies the prodigiously masculine virtue of honour.Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, DC Entertainment
Yet, Diana remains supremely womanly. She cries at the death of innocents and the sight of broken male bodies returning from the battlefields of the first world war. She is drawn to babies and infants (to be fair, they are rare in the female-only Themyscira, her place of origin). She appoints herself protector of displaced women and children. So immense is her capacity for empathy that she unlocks a year-long, gridlocked frontline for the male soldiers behind her.
This is a paragon of femininity whose acts of violence are guided by masculine codes of honour. But what of “ordinary” women in England in the 1910s – the place and time in which the movie is set – who performed acts of violence?
Honour, violence and women
Historically, violence has not been seen as a feminine activity. Women were regarded as the sex that was more passive, submissive, and sensitive to others. Those who committed particularly violent acts tended to be labelled masculine at best, abhorrent at worst.
Men were permitted to use violence against other men in the name of honour. Honour meant courage, chivalry, honesty, and fairness. Honour codes were backed by the threat of violence.Atlas Entertainment, Cruel & Unusual Films, DC Entertainment
Women were not permitted to assume an active relationship with honour and its codes. Instead, a passive role was conferred on them through the notion of chivalry - a benevolent form of sexism whereby the strong, active sex protects the weaker, passive one.
England in the 1910s was home to notorious acts of female violence. Suffragettes – members of the Women’s Social and Political Union – performed a range of militant activities in the campaign for the vote: breaking windows, fire-bombing letterboxes and houses, and whipping and throwing hatchets at male politicians. These violent women challenged reigning concepts of womanhood.
Women against female violence
Authors: Sharon Crozier-De Rosa, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Wollongong